Media statement

Statement from the Ministry of Health and Medical Services

Bula Vinaka.

Thank you for tuning in to this briefing from the safety of your homes.

I want to begin with an update on the two patients admitted into intensive care yesterday. Both are responding well to treatment. Our teams are attending dutifully to these patients and providing them with the best possible care.

After running more than 2,500 tests since yesterday we have four new cases of COVID-19 to confirm. These cases are all close contacts of existing cases from the Nadali cluster.

Due to a steadily rising number of cases, we are concerned that Nadali has become a source of widespread COVID transmission. We have cordoned off the entire Nadali Area as a screening zone, meaning no one is allowed to leave Nadali until we screen, swab, and clear everyone in the area. Those who need to return to the area may do so provided they do not leave.

As we announced earlier today, we flagged a potentially high-risk case of the virus yesterday in the Northern Division after an individual residing in Labasa initially registered a positive COVID-19 test result. While we suspected this was a false positive case given the unusual nature of the test result, we immediately took preventive action to cordon off the area in which the individual resided as well as sections of Labasa Hospital. However, after thorough investigations, repeated negative test results for the individual and his close contacts, and careful consultations with the WHO, we can confirm that this was indeed a false positive test result.

False positives are rare occurrences that have occurred worldwide. We have protocols in place to identify these rare occurrences when they happen, and these protocols have functioned well in this case. So, we can assure everyone that the North is COVID-Contained. And we have strengthened protocols for the movement of food, freight, and fuel to keep it that way.

For every hour of the past four days, my teams have combed through Suva and Nausori to trace and test primary and secondary contacts of existing cases of COVID-19. As a reminder for everyone, these “contacts” are people who had interactions with individuals who have tested positive for the virus and may have passed it to them. It was important that we find these people so we could test them and ensure they do not pose a wider risk of transmission to our communities. Thanks to the use of careFIJI, we found many of the contacts quickly. Others have required more in-depth investigations to find. In total, we have placed 7,888 contacts in Suva and Nausori under quarantine. This is the largest number of active contacts we have ever identified.

We don’t measure success solely by the number of contacts in quarantine, but these are important markers of progress. They represent Fijians at risk of infection. Identifying them and isolating them ensures that chains of transmission were broken before they could extend, it means clusters were thwarted before they exploded beyond our control. Those quiet victories against this invisible enemy were only possible thanks to the public’s cooperation and support through our four days of strict lockdown. Thank you Suva, thank you Nausori –– your cooperation has paid real dividends for the health of the nation.

With the high-risk known contacts under quarantine, we can allow the 24-hour curfew for Suva and Nausori to lift at its scheduled close at 0400 hours tomorrow morning, allowing for limited movement in a highly controlled fashion.

Suva and Nausori will again become two separate containment zones. As is the case for the rest of Viti Levu, the 6pm until 4am curfew will apply.  Supermarkets may open. Banks may open. Pharmacies may open. Restaurants may offer takeaway and delivery services only. Save for these purposes, movement should be avoided as much as possible, and mixing between different household bubbles should not happen at all. Please send only one member of your household outside at any given time. Do not bring children out of the home. If you are the member of your household who leaves, wear a mask and wear it properly and maintain a physical distance of two metres from others. Make sure you have careFiji installed, with Bluetooth turned on. Wash your hands often. And immediately after you finish your trip to the supermarket, bank, or pharmacy, go straight home. That’s not an excuse for anyone to be outside without good reason. If you need food, get it and go straight back home.

For all non-containment areas, businesses that are not classified as high-risk may operate so long as they enforce mask-wearing, physical distancing and require customers and employees to have carefiji installed with bluetooth turned on. Again, high-risk businesses include: Gyms, movie theatres, video gaming shops, cyber cafes, taverns, bars, billiard shops and amusement arcades, as well as hairdressers, barber shops, spas, beauty therapy, massage therapy venues, saunas and tattoo parlours. The nature of these businesses means they cannot operate with proper COVID-safe protocols, including enforced physical distancing of two meters. They should all be closed everywhere in Fiji.

Tracing is half of the containment equation, and my teams deserve high marks for their efforts in that regard.  But we are tracing much faster than we have been able to test due to the recent issue at Fiji CDC. We have more than 11,000 swab results yet to be processed. We are triaging our testing –– which means we are prioritising the swab results from the highest risk individuals. But until we know more, we have 11,000 reasons why we can’t rollback more restrictions. We simply have to run many, many more tests.

I mentioned that we had run more than 2,500 tests since yesterday. I want to put our current testing capacity in perspective for everyone. In the midst of last year’s COVID-19 outbreak, we ran 776 COVID-19 tests in the entire month of April. In other words, something like 25 tests per day. Before this outbreak our testing had grown to about 250-300 per day. And then before the temporary shutdown of Fiji CDC over the weekend we were testing at an average of 1785 samples per day. Relative to our population, that puts our daily testing rate on par with the current rate of testing in Australia and New Zealand i.e. 1-3 per 1000 population per day. And we have plans to expand our testing further –– much further.

We have 28 new Genexpert machines received yesterday that are being deployed nationwide. Assuming they run 24/7, our total testing capacity will rise to at least 3,000 tests per day. While that full capacity gets up and running, we will be sending the backlog of swabs to a private lab in Australia on Thursday, with the results expected by this weekend. We thank the Australian Government for their support in this endeavour.

As that data informs our next steps, the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport has announced a system of passes to allow businesses with COVID-safe operations plans to re-open. A digital portal for obtaining passes is in development, MCTTT will announce details within the next two days on how business and employers can apply through that process to operate with the appropriate safeguards in place.

We expect to see employers and businesses to put careful thought into COVID-safe operations plans. We want you to re-open, we want you to employ people, because we need your full might behind alleviating the socioeconomic burden of this pandemic. But that has to be done in extremely well-managed ways. I urge businesses not to begin this process with a temporary timeline in mind. “Normal” has a new definition. The world has adapted to cater for the risks of the coronavirus, so must we. I can’t promise that the results of our testing will make reopening feasible for everyone in the near-term. But we have to at least begin the process of putting forward COVID-safe business plans that manage the risks of resuming operations responsibly.

We’re heading into a new phase, Fiji, a new normal that the rest of the world has embraced but that we are yet to fully adopt. We have to take careful steps. We have to maintain a constant state of vigilance. We must sustain our commitment to the measures we know can keep us safe. And we have to take the onus of containment as a society. Not from top down, but from the grassroots, where everyday decisions by ordinary Fijians, taken together, can set us down a safer, more sustainable path.

We are going to steadily enhance our community surveillance plans ––  both through mobile teams and stationary clinics. We have likely cases of community transmission in Fiji––that means access to screening and testing at the community level is critical. If new cases come about and future restrictions must come into place, this strengthened network of community surveillance will ensure those measures can be more targeted. And our testing capacity will continue expanding so that we can turn around more tests more quickly.

Today marks 30 days since this year’s first local case of COVID-19. It took us that same length of time –– exactly 30 days –– to contain last year’s outbreak of COVID-19. I’m telling you now, this outbreak is more serious than anything we’ve faced before. This will not be a 30-day war. The variant is more transmissible. The clusters of cases are larger and more widespread. And I can sadly promise you that today will not be the last day that we announce new local cases. We may have found thousands of contacts, but it will take many more days of testing to know how many people may be positive and how our containment strategy must evolve in response. In the meantime, please do not leave your homes unless you need to get food, medicine, or other essential items. The threat is out there, please act accordingly. Don’t only act carefully just because we’ve told you to do so, do it because your life and the lives of those you love depend on it.

Thank you.